Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Craft, Telos, and the Representation of Labor: Nineteenth-Century Readings of Benvenuto Cellini

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Craft, Telos, and the Representation of Labor: Nineteenth-Century Readings of Benvenuto Cellini

Article excerpt


This essay examines the reception of the most popular account of workmanship in the nineteenth century. Written in the late 1550s but only canonized in the 1800s, Benvenuto Cellini's autobiography features his intuitive ability to perform every kind of dexterous activity, from the craft in which he was properly trained--goldsmithing--to shooting, soldiering, jailbreaking, and surgery. For nineteenth-century advocates of skilled labor, the canonization of Cellini's Life thus epitomized the unsettling extension of craft's appeal from learned practical skills to the consumable image of the artisan's more vital way of being. Cellini's translators, commentators, and many promoters within the craft movement found themselves beholden to dual imperatives: to celebrate the text, but also to hold off that text from whatever seemed to distance craft from its incarnate, physical origins. The essay traces the specific strategies by which writers about the Life (including John Addington Symonds, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Adams, C.R. Ashbee, and Royal Cortissoz) sought to adapt traditional ideas about craft's telos--its adaption to practical results and professional specificity--to the aggressively-promoted narrative appeal of Cellini's desultory, wide-ranging, and dynamic life.


Of all the projects curtailed by death, Michelangelo's unfinished work on St. Peter's Basilica is one of the most widely lamented. Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Michael Angelo," however, forestalls too much disappointment by rendering the fragmentary state of Michelangelo's architectural vision as the practically inevitable result of his patience as an artisan:

   He did not live to complete the work; but is there not something
   affecting in the spectacle of an old man, on the verge of ninety
   years, carrying steadily onward, with the heat and determination of
   manhood, his poetic conceptions into progressive execution,
   surmounting by the dignity of his purposes all obstacles and all
   enmities, and only hindered by the limits of life from fulfilling
   his designs? Very slowly came he, after months and years, to the
   dome. At last he began to model it very small in wax. When it was
   finished, he had it copied larger in wood, and by this model it was
   built. Long after it was completed. (1)

Emerson's prose is halting. The long sequence of differently constructed clauses in the first sentence lurches along, converting what first appears an intransitive participle ("carrying steadily onward ...") into a transitive figure with a definite object ("... his poetic conceptions"). The staccato effect of the passage's long unfolding is then taken up by the sentences punctuating the timeline of Michelangelo's labor on St. Peter's; the passage's episodic rhetorical construction mirrors the accumulative sequences of the physical building. The "heat and determination of manhood" flow through conscientious artisanal process, transforming what Emerson describes as Michelangelo's initial reluctance to take the commission--because he "distrusted his capacity as an architect" (235)--into the first of a series of discrete and cautious steps by which the goal was actually accomplished. Under these conditions, the fact that St. Peter's was only completed "long after" Michelangelo's death appears not as a fracture or a frustration--what John Addington Symonds called a "matter of profound regret" in the history of art--but as the apparently natural culmination of the long sequence by which exceptional things are built. (2)

Such constancy, Michelangelo's "severest discipline" in studying physics and matter, constitutes the epistemological mechanism that, for Emerson, transmuted nature into art. But the patient planning, careful labor, and slow realization of St. Peter's also epitomize virtues of craftsmanship with which nineteenth-century writers wrestled. In the context of prevailing attitudes about artisanal labor, Emerson's rhetorical question, asking readers if there is not "something affecting" in the spectacle of "progressive execution," has a sharper point than his regard for the octogenarian Michelangelo's efforts. …

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